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Rural Electricity Schemes Rife With Corruption, Insider Says

Prices per kilowatt hour can be up to four times more expensive in the countryside, where many of the country’s impoverished live, than in the city.
A whistleblower inside the government says private electricity companies, backed by government officials, are charging high prices for unreliable power in many Cambodian communities.

The official, who spoke to VOA Khmer on condition of anonymity, said at least 100 government officials have awarded themselves lucrative government contracts to provide power in rural communities, while other officials receive kickbacks in licensing schemes.

The government licenses subcontractors for rural power, as it is unable to provide it on a grid in the way it does in urban areas. But prices per kilowatt hour can be up to four times more expensive in the countryside, where many of the country’s impoverished live, than in the city.

About a third of the rural subcontractors in rural areas are also officials at the Cambodian Electric Authority or the Ministry of Mines and Industry—a violation of the law—the insider says.

That means they have made no efforts to expand the grid, as it is harmful to their commercial interest, he said. So power that costs $0.25 per kilowatt hour in the city can run up to $1 per kilowatt hour in some rural areas.

And there are 354 licenses to subcontractors out there, making the problem widespread. These supply power to 10,000 villagers, or about 900,000 homes—or 40 percent of the population.

Government officials inside the ministry and at relevant authorities did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, Cambodia lags far behind its neighbors in electrification. Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia have all invested in an electricity grid they themselves can supply. This infrastructure was built with loans from international partners. In Thailand, for example, that meant a jump from 10 percent of the population having power under rural electrification to 99 percent 30 years later.

In Cambodia, however, rural resident complain about the high prices, but they see little recourse.

Som Vann, a 72-year-old resident of Kampong Rao district, Svay Rieng province, said the high prices, about $0.30 per kilowatt hour in his village, is twice what people pay in the district center, which is on the grid. “This is expensive for us,” he said. “But we have no options.”

And the power is not reliable.

“Electricity here blacks out several times every day, says Chreng Sophea, 34, a resident of Saang district, Kandal province. In recent months, her electricity bill has doubled, she said.

Chring Sreang, a commune chief in the district, said they once had adequate power supply from a company, but when it expanded to other communes, there was not enough. “The company told me they are contacting Vietnam to buy more electricity to meet increasing demand,” he said.

Cambodia’s demand is increasing, even though it still imports about 60 percent of its power from neighboring Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The rest comes from coal-fired plants or hydropower facilities.

And the government does not have the capability to expand the production and distribution across the country, the insider says. That will make it very difficult to meet its goal of universal access by 2020, he said.